PRODUCT ADS COME UP WINNER IN U.K. ELECTION: CANDY & SODA, NOT MAJOR & BLAIR, ARE HITTING THE MARK CREATIVELY

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[london] As the Conservative Party nears an expected defeat in the U.K.'s general election May 1-ending Maurice Saatchi's 18-year streak masterminding winning political advertising-it is product marketers that are producing some of the most interesting election-related ads.

Advertising and promotions for Thorntons chocolate, Tango soft drinks and Swatch watches, among others, are spoofing both the campaign process and the candidates.

CHOCOLATE POLITICOS

A newspaper ad for U.K. confectioner Thorntons, from Rainey Kelly Campbell Rolfe, uses the headline, "Politicians can be bought," and shows chocolate figures of famous politicians, including Labour Party candidate Tony Blair, Prime Minister John Major and Lord Sutch, founder and perennial candidate of the Monster Raving Loony Party.

U.K. soft drink Tango from Britvic Soft Drinks is airing a TV spot by HHCL Partners that color codes the different political parties to various flavors of Tango. And Swatch is using a direct-mail brochure promoting the Swatch-sponsored Irony Party, touting the campaign theme "Vote style."

As for the real political race, the one-month campaign is not a big deal compared with the length of U.S. campaigns, with Mr. Blair widely believed to be near ending the term of Mr. Major.

Labour, with a comfortable 20-point lead by most polls, is sticking mainly to out-of-home advertising, said Gail Nuttney, the account director at BMP DDB Needham in charge of the Labour ad campaign.

BIG-SPENDING TORIES

The biggest-spending party is the Conservatives, which Labour officials estimate may spend $16 million on newspaper and outdoor ads from M&C Saatchi.

Paid political TV advertising is taboo in the U.K., although each of the two main parties gets 25 minutes of free airtime, divided into 5-minute broadcasts created by their ad agencies.

Two other parties, the Liberal Democrats and the Referendum Party, are doing little advertising.

Last week, the Labour Party started an outdoor campaign focusing on five election pledges, including "Income tax rates will not rise" and "More jobs for young people."

In a more unconventional use of media, aimed at reaching young people, who often don't vote, Labour is sticking humorous posters on the doors of public toilets in 3,000 pubs and nightclubs. They read: "Now wash your hands of the Tories."

M&C Saatchi executives, who snatched the Conservative Party account last year from Mr. Saatchi's former agency, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, are keeping an uncharacteristically low profile as they shuttle back and forth to meetings at Conservative Central Office.

Previous election campaigns have been enlivened by dramatic clashes with agencies trying to claim credit for ideas used by the Conservatives, and by party ads such as 1979's memorable "Labour isn't working" poster that showed snaking lines of unemployed Britons.

That famous ad helped topple the last Labour government.

"Traditionally, [the] Saatchis have done astonishingly powerful things," Ms. Nuttney said.

REINING IN SAATCHI?

This year's campaign has been rife with speculation that the Conservatives aren't giving Mr. Saatchi's agency as free a hand to create more daring ads.

The most exciting one-a print ad depicting Mr. Blair with unearthly red "Demon eyes"-ran before the campaign actually started and was banned by the U.K.'s Advertising Standards Authority regulatory body after 167 complaints from the public.

"Demon eyes" became so well-known that U.K. supermarket chain Tesco is promoting its pork pies with an ad by Lowe Howard-Spink showing a man with a pork pie covering each eye and the headline "Demon pies."

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